Paul Klee

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The main thing now is not to paint precociously but to be, or at least become, an individual. The art of mastering life is the prerequisite for all further forms of expression, whether they are paintings, sculptures, tragedies, or musical compositions.

Paul Klee (December 18 1879June 29 1940) was a Swiss painter of German nationality. He was influenced by many different art styles in his work, including expressionism, cubism and surrealism, and had influence on Kandinsky when they were both teaching at the Bauhaus.

Quotes of Paul Klee[edit]

The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces realistic art.
Things appear to assume a broader and more diversified meaning, often seemingly contradicting the rational experience of yesterday. There is a striving to emphasize the essential character of the accidental.
When looking at any significant work of art, remember that a more significant one probably has had to be sacrificed.
To emphasize only the beautiful seems to me to be like a mathematical system that only concerns itself with positive numbers.
Nature can afford to be prodigal in everything, the artist must be frugal down to the last detail.
It is interesting to observe how real the object remains, in spite of all abstractions.
We construct and keep on constructing, yet intuition is still a good thing.

1900s[edit]

"Artists on Art, from the 14th – 20th centuries"[edit]

"Artists on Art, from the 14th – 20th centuries", ed. Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves; Pantheon Books, 1972, London

  • But by way of consolation: it is valueless to paint premature things, what counts is to be a personality, or at least to become one. The domination of life is one of the basic conditions of productive expression. For me this is surely the case; when I am depressed I am unable even to think about it – and this holds true for painting, sculpture, tragedy, or music. But I believe that pictures alone will abundantly fill out this one life.. (Bern, April 1902)
    • p. 442
  • I have a feeling that sooner or later I shall arrive at something legitimate, only I must begin, not with hypotheses, but with specific instances, no matter how minute. If I then succeed in distinguishing a clear structure, I get more from it than from a lofty imaginary construction. And the typical will automatically follow from a series of examples. (Bern, April 1902)
    • p. 442
  • It is a great difficulty and great necessity to have to start with the smallest. I want to be as though new-born, knowing nothing, absolutely nothing, about Europe; ignoring poets and fashions, to be almost primitive. Then I want to do something very modest; to work out by myself a tiny, formal motive, one that my pencil; will be able to hold without any technique. One favorable moment is enough. The little thing is easily and concisely set down. It’s already done! It was a tiny but real affair, and someday, through the repetition of such small but original deeds, there will come one work upon which I can really build. (June 1902)
    • p. 442
  • The naked body is an altogether suitable object. In art classes I have gradually learned something of it from every angle. But now I will no more project some plan of it: I will proceed so that all its essentials, even those hidden by optical perspective, will appear upon the paper. And thus a little uncontested personal property has already been discovered, a style has been created. (June 1902)
    • p. 443
  • Formerly it frequently happened to me that when questioned regarding a picture I simply did not know what it represented. I had not seen the subject, so to say. Now I have also included the content so that I know most of the time what is represented. But this only supports my experience that what matters in the ultimate end is the abstract meaning of harmonization (note from a letter, 1903)
    • p. 443
  • When in Italy [Klee stayed in Italy, in 1901], I learned to understand architectural monuments.. .Even the dullest will understand that the obvious commensurability of parts, to each other and to the whole, corresponds to the hidden numerical proportions that exist in other artificial and natural organisms. It is clear that these figures are not cold and dead, but full of the breath of life; and the importance of measurements as an aid to study and creation becomes evident. (December 1903)
    • p. 443

The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918[edit]

The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918; University of California Press, 1968, ISBN 0-520-00653-4

  • My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones.
    • Diary entry (Munich, 1901), # 136, (p. 48)
  • The main thing now is not to paint precociously but to be, or at least become, an individual. The art of mastering life is the prerequisite for all further forms of expression, whether they are paintings, sculptures, tragedies, or musical compositions.
    • Diary entry (3 June 1902), # 411
  • When looking at any significant work of art, remember that a more significant one probably has had to be sacrificed.
    • Diary entry (December 1904), # 583
  • The beautiful, which is perhaps inseparable from art, is not after all tied to the subject, but to the pictorial representation. In this way and in no other does art overcome the ugly without avoiding it.
    • Diary entry (December 1905), # 733
  • To emphasize only the beautiful seems to me to be like a mathematical system that only concerns itself with positive numbers.
    • Diary entry (March 1906), # 759, The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918
  • He has found his style, when he cannot do otherwise, i.e., cannot do something else.
    • Diary entry (Munich, 1908), # 825, The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (p. 227)
  • Nature can afford to be prodigal in everything, the artist must be frugal down to the last detail.
    Nature is garrulous to the point of confusion, let the artist be truly taciturn.
    • Diary entry (Munich, 1909), # 857, The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (p. 236)
  • All the things an artist must be: poet, explorer of nature, philosopher!
    • Diary entry (Spring 1911), # 895

1910s[edit]

  • These are primitive beginnings in art, such as one usually finds in ethnographic collections or at home in one's nursery. Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in their having it! The more helpless they are, the more instructive are the examples they furnish us; and they must be preserved from corruption at an early age. Parallel phenomena are provided by the works of the mentally diseased; neither childish behaviour nor madness are insulting words here, as they commonly are. All this is to be taken very seriously, more seriously than all the public galleries, when it comes to reforming today's art.
    • Diary entry (January 1912), # 905, quoting his "Munich Art Letter" in the journal Die Alpen
  • Colour possesses me. It will always possess me. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.
    • Diary entry Tunisia, (16 April 1914), # 926o
  • The evening is deep inside me forever. Many a blond, northern moonrise, like a muted reflection, will softly remind me and remind me again and again. It will be my bride, my alter ego. An incentive to find myself. I myself am the moonrise of the south.
  • The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.
    • Diary entry (1915), # 951
    • Variant: The more horrifying this world becomes (as it is these days) the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces realistic art.
    • Variant: The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces realistic art. This was quoted in the speech "Between Two Ages: The Meaning Of Our Times" by Wm. Van Dusen Wishard
  • Polyphonic painting is superior to music in that there, the time element becomes a spatial element. The notion of simultaneity stands out even more richly.
    • Statement of 1917, as quoted in Abstract Art (1990) by Anna Moszynska, p. 96
  • We document, explain, justify, construct, organize: these are good things, but we do not succeed in coming to the whole ... But we may as well calm down: construction is not absolute. Our virtue is this: by cultivating the exact we have laid the foundations for a science of art, including the unknown X.
    • Statement of 1917, as quoted in Teaching at the Bauhaus (2000) by Rainer Wick and Gabriele Diana Grawe, p. 231
  • Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void. Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.
    • Diary entry (January/February 1918), # 1104, The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (p. 387)

1920s[edit]

  • Diesseitig bin ich gar nicht fassbar. Denn ich wohne grad so gut bei den Toten, wie bei den Ungeborenen. Etwas näher dem Herzen der Schöpfung als üblich. Und noch lange nicht nahe genug.
    • I cannot be grasped in the here and now. For I reside just as much with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat closer to the heart of creation than usual. But not nearly close enough.
      • Exhibition catalogue, Galerie Goltz, Munich, published in the gallery's house journal Der Ararat (May 1920). These words were later used as Klee's epitaph.
    • Variant translation: I cannot be understood at all on this earth. For I live as much with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat closer to the heart of creation than usual. But not nearly close enough.
      • As quoted in Paul Klee : His Work and Thought (1991) by Marcel Franciscono, p. 5
  • Color is primarily Quality. Secondly, it is also Weight, for it has not only color value but also brilliance. Thirdly, it is Measure, for besides Quality and Weight, it has its limits, its area, and its extent, all of which may be measured.

    Tone value is primarily Weight, but in its extent and its boundaries, it is also Measure.

    Line, however, is solely Measure.

    • "On Modern Art," lecture, Kunstverein, Jena (26 January 1924), trans. Paul Findlay in Paul Klee: On Modern Art (London, 1948)
  • It is interesting to observe how real the object remains, in spite of all abstractions.
    • Statement of mid-1920s, as quoted in Abstract Art (1990) by Anna Moszynska, p. 100
  • It is possible that a picture will move far away from Nature and yet find its way back to reality. The faculty of memory, experience at a distance produces pictorial associations.
    • Statement of mid-1920s, as quoted in Abstract Art (1990) by Anna Moszynska, p. 100
  • The longer a line, the more of the time element it contains. Distance is time whereas a surface is apprehended more in terms of the moment.
    • Exact Experiments in the Realm of Art (1927)
  • We [at the Bauhaus, in Dessau - where Klee was art teacher with Kandinsky ] construct and construct, and yet intuition still has its uses. Without it we can do a lot, but not everything.. .When intuition is joined to exact research it speeds the progress of exact research..
    • In: 'Bauhaus prospectus 1929'; as quoted in "Artists on Art, from the 14th – 20th centuries", ed. by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves; Pantheon Books, 1972, London, p. 444
  • What had already been done for music by the end of the eighteenth century has at last been begun for the pictorial arts. Mathematics and physics furnished the means in the form of rules to be followed and to be broken. In the beginning it is wholesome to be concerned with the functions and to disregard the finished form. Studies in algebra, in geometry, in mechanics characterize teaching directed towards the essential and the functional, in contrast to apparent. One learns to look behind the façade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the undercurrents, the antecedents of the visible. One learns to dig down, to uncover, to find the cause, to analyze.
    • In: 'Bauhaus prospectus 1929'; as quoted in "Artists on Art, from the 14th – 20th centuries", ed. by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves; Pantheon Books, 1972, London, p. 444

Creative Credo (1920)[edit]

Creative Credo [Schöpferische Konfession] (1920)
  • Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar.
    • Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
    • Section I
  • A tendency toward the abstract is inherent in linear expression: graphic imagery being confined to outlines has a fairy-like quality and at the same time can achieve great precision.
    • Section I
  • The pictorial work was born of movement, is itself recorded movement, and is assimilated through movement (eye muscles).
    • Section IV
  • Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities. Things appear to assume a broader and more diversified meaning, often seemingly contradicting the rational experience of yesterday. There is a striving to emphasize the essential character of the accidental.
    • Section V

Attributed from posthumous publications[edit]

  • Art should be like a holiday: something to give a man the opportunity to see things differently and to change his point of view.
    • As quoted in the film Der Bauhaus, produced by TV-Rechte in Germany (1975)


Quotes about Paul Klee[edit]

  • A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.


  • But Paul Klee and Franz Marc were also close friends, and August Macke, too, whenever he was in Munich.. .Klee was never as active a theorist, in those years, as Kandinsky or Marianne de Werefkin. Besides, it took Klee much longer to become a truly and conscious modern artist.. .As you can see in my portrait of Klee, which is painted in 1913 – I mean the one where he is seen seated in one of the rooms here downstairs and wearing white summer slacks – he is not very communicative. That is why I depicted him all hunched up and tense, as if he were constraining some mainspring within himself. In my eyes, it was almost a portrait of silence rather than of Klee, and for many years it no longer occurred to me that he had been my model. But Klee was always a close friend of ours, and Kandinsky and I had great confidence in his talent and his future... (1958)
    • Gabriele Münter in an interview, 1958; as quoted in Dialogues – conversations with European Artists at Mid-century, Edouard Roditi, Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd, London, 1990, p. 120


  • Klee was my so-called form master [at the w:Bauhaus, where a. o. Kandinsky, Klee and Albers were art teachers]. In the workshops there they had a crafts master and a form master. The crafts master had to direct the practical work, the mechanics of the workshop. And the form master had to develop the, formal qualities. Klee was my form master in the glass workshop. He came to me and never criticized anything. He talked about something else. Never asked about any form problem with the windows I was working on. Never a word. He was too respectful. He was the nicest master I could ask for. He talked about exhibitions. He thought I should exhibit. That's another story. We had a good relationship because we never dealt with the same problems. He didn't attack our problems. He never brought up a problem.
    • Josef Albers, in 'Oral history interview with Josef Albers, conducted by Sevim Fesci, 22 June – 5 July 1968, for the 'Archives of American Art', Smithsonian Institution


  • Klee's idiosyncracies always remained somewhat beyond the law, as it were. For 'genius is the defect in the system,' stated the conscientious system builder, who knew that genius was the only thing that could neither be taught nor learned.

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